Following a two-year hiatus, Lotus is back stateside. Here's what we've been missing.
I like feel-good stories, and the 2017 Lotus Evora 400 I'm driving on Western Michigan's country roads has all the makings of a good one for auto enthusiasts. The car I'm at the wheel of marks the return of the British sports car company to the US. It's essentially been gone since 2014, back when it had to stop selling the Evora S here because it could no longer meet federal regulations.
Recent history has been tough for the plucky automaker, with numerous leadership changes and failed plans to launch a slew of new models, but the resilient little company is still standing. Returning to the States should be a key step towards better days, since we've accounted for roughly half of company's sales in the past.
Even without the resources of performance-car juggernauts like Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren or Porsche, Lotus has always managed to engineer and build special automobiles by keeping them simple, lightweight and involving. It doesn't take much time behind the wheel on the roads around South Haven to get a sense that Lotus has stuck with the same blueprint for the Evora 400, but it's clearly made a lot of meaningful improvements since the Evora S. This is not just an Evora with a more powerful engine.
A more powerful engine, however, is a major element in the Evora 400 equation, with the Toyota-sourced 3.5-liter V6 now getting a new intercooler and engine management tuning to go along with an Edelbrock supercharger. This results in 400 horsepower -- a 55-pony jump over the S -- and 302 pound-feet of torque between 3,500 and 6,500 rpm.
Like all Evora 400s, the six-speed manual transmission in my yellow tester has also been upgraded with a new clutch and flywheel. According to Lotus, with the standard gearbox, the car gets to 60 mph in 4.1 seconds and boasts a top speed of 186 mph, making it the fastest street car the company has ever built.
For those wondering about fuel economy, the EPA gives the 400 a rating of 16 miles per gallon city and 24 mpg highway.
If for some reason you don't want to have three pedals in your 400, Lotus offers a six-speed automatic for an additional $2,700. With the slushbox, top speed is only 174 mph, but you do enjoy a slightly better city fuel economy rating of 17 mpg.
This car is very quick from dead stops, with pull particularly strong at the top half of the engine's rev range. Rowing through the manual gearbox is pleasant, with fairly crisp gear engagement, and the light clutch pedal is easy to work with. Unlike most newer models, steering remains hydraulically assisted, affording great response and feel.
What's the most surprising thing of all about the Lotus' street performance? Ride quality isn't half bad over broken Midwest pavement. The Evora 400's passive suspension, with Bilstein shocks and Eibach springs offers some give to take the edge off impacts. That's more impressive when you consider that the car rides on staggered 19-inch front and 20-inch rear low-profile Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires.
Visually, there are no earth-shattering exterior changes to the 400. It remains instantly recognizable as an Evora, but eagle-eyed Lotus aficionados can probably pick up the redesigned front bumper with larger lower air dam, along with revised daytime running lights, door mirrors, wheels and a new rear bumper with diffuser.
The most noticeable alteration to the design is the three-element wing, which not only looks sharp, it joins forces with the new front end and rear diffuser to raise downforce to 71 pounds at 150 mph -- a big upgrade for high-speed stability over the Evora S' 35.2 pounds.
Improvements are more substantial in the cabin with better ingress and egress thanks to a revised aluminum chassis featuring skinnier and lower side sills. Thinner interior door panels give more front elbow room, while the rear seats are 11 inches wider than before. The latter doesn't really matter, however, because the backseats have so little headroom and legroom that only the very young have a shot at fitting back there.
Front accommodations have been improved, with new seats that are both comfortable and supportive, and there's sufficient space preventing the cabin from feeling tight for drivers of average dimensions. My test car's optional $3,400 leather package gives the interior a higher quality look and feel with soft hide and contrast stitching covering all major surfaces. This is still not a fully modern cabin with switchgear and material choices that should worry designers at larger sports car companies, but build quality inside is good, and commendably free of annoying creaks and rattles.
A new dashboard houses an Alpine double-DIN head unit with Bluetooth and navigation. It's far from the best infotainment interface, with an unresponsive touchscreen and not-so-great-looking maps, but it's better than nothing. Fans of satellite radio, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto will be disappointed, because none of those features are available in the Lotus.
The safety technology menu is also light, with a standard rearview camera and rear parking sensors, which come in handy when backing up, because rearward visibility through the small rear window is poor. There's no automatic emergency braking, lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control and the like. If you're into cabin tech, a Lotus automobile is probably not for you.
If you value a simple, performance-focused sports car and often pitch up at autocrosses and racetracks, a Lotus may be up your alley. I'm in South Haven to stretch the Evora 400's legs on GingerMan Raceway for a day, and it only takes a couple of laps to feel the coupe come alive. I have the car in Race mode, which reduces stability control intervention, increases throttle response and keeps the active exhaust valve open for a slightly deeper growl when on power.
Surprising at first is the bit of body roll during corner entry and side-to-side transitions, but it's minimal and doesn't bother after a few laps. Flick the steering wheel at turn-in and the Evora goes where you tell it to almost immediately. Feedback through the wheel lets you know exactly what the front tires are doing and when they're approaching their adhesion limits.
In tight stuff like GingerMan's off-camber right at Turn 10B, the 3,153-pound 400 will push, but through the rest of the circuit's corners, the Lotus dances, displaying great midengine balance, grip and composure, with no noticeable interference from stability control. Brakes stay strong throughout a day of abuse and they aren't carbon ceramics. With so little weight, more conventional AP Racing four-piston calipers biting down on cross-drilled and ventilated two-piece steel discs at all corners do the job admirably.
Pedals are well placed for heel-and-toe downshifting, and throttle response is good for easy rev-matching. Powering out of turns and down straights is brisk, but I would be lying if I didn't say that the Lotus' giddyup is a small letdown. With 400 horsepower on tap, I feel like the car should be a step quicker at wide-open-throttle.
Without a doubt, the Evora 400 is a special car. It's a rare bird (a canary, perhaps) in a performance realm that's becoming more complicated by the day. These days, most new sports cars arrive wearing adaptive suspensions, a mind-numbing amount of adjustment options for the engine and gearbox and full of luxury and tech features that do little to enhance the car's actual performance. The beauty of the Lotus is that it's simple, highly capable, involving behind the wheel and has livable on-road manners for drives to and from the race track.
The 400's biggest problem is its $91,900 base price, which puts it into the conversation with cars like the base Porsche 911, Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport and Jaguar F-Type. There's also the Porsche Cayman and Alfa Romeo 4C if you want to talk about other midengine competitors, both of which cost substantially less.
You'll be part of an exclusive group, though, if you decide to be one of the folks who welcome Lotus back to the US by writing it a check. The fact that Lotus has returned and is selling a really great car here again is a happy ending to the story, and I look forward seeing more from them in the future.
Having said that, though, if it was my $90k on the line, I'd probably still end up shopping elsewhere.